Ashland woman makes international students feel at home

Courage, adventurous spirits, and lots of jet fuel were some of the ingredients that made dinner possible Monday night in Susan Koralek’s dining room. The only things missing were red beans and rice, but for international Southern Oregon University students Becky Li and Laura Sosa Ramirez, from China and Columbia respectively, a trip to the grocery store is hardly trip at all, so off to the Shop ‘N Kart they went.

Susan Koralek and international SOU student Laura Sosa Ramirez cooking dinner together. Photo by Karla Huff/The Siskiyou

Ramirez, 22, was a little homesick, having arrived in Ashland only last week, and wanted to cook a meal she knew she’d like. While she did the cooking, Li (pronounced Lee) set the table, and Koralek, the sous-chef de cuisine, or Ramirez’s helper, washed dishes and did prep work.

Li and Ramirez live with Koralek, an Ashland resident and longtime host of students who come from all around the world to study at Southern Oregon University. Koralek, 57, has had students living with her for over 15 years, with her first student moving in to one of her two spare bedrooms in 1997.

For Koralek, who works in SOU’s Office of International Programs, the evening resembled many others over the past 15 years. The food is (mostly) always good, she said, and the mood is usually familial.

The family aspect is very important to Koralek, who makes sure students know beforehand that “they are moving into a family situation … They are not just renting a room.”

Koralek enjoys the diversity and relationships that hosting international students brings her, she said. In an effort to increase the diversity of her home, the local community and the SOU campus, Koralek likes to host two students at a time from different countries.

Koralek said she only hosts female students, for fear of upsetting her male cat.

“And another reason,” she added with a wink, “is that I like to have two students at a time … and a male and a female … we won’t go there.”

SOU has 125 international students enrolled this term, according to Mary Gardiner, Education Abroad coordinator, a 17.4 percent increase over fall term last year. These students come from countries all over the world, including Venezuela, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Denmark, Japan, and others. Altogether, SOU attracts students from over 20 countries.

International students are either a part of the direct exchange program – meaning that they come from a university abroad that has an established relationship with SOU, and the two universities exchange students one-for-one – or they arranged their coming to SOU through one of three organizations, called providers, that facilitate the process.

Upon arrival in Southern Oregon, the students have to figure out their housing arrangements on their own. Some students choose the dorms; others find a host family with an extra room or they find themselves an apartment, and some even settle in at a local hotel. The university does not get involved in the students’ housing situation, unless they choose to live in the dorms.

“Our office does not connect students with host families in a formal way,” said Koralek. “If you want to be a host family, you send us a flier with your information on it.”

International students who want to live with host families will then have access to these fliers and contact the prospective host families themselves, similar to finding an apartment through Craigslist.

The students who come to live with Koralek, however, are usually referred to her by her former housemates who have graduated or otherwise moved on.

Li, 23, has lived with Koralek for almost five years, but will graduate this year with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism management, and is planning to get some work experience before going for a master’s degree in business.

Ramirez is studying English in the Intensive English Program to fulfill a requirement for a degree in business administration.

Both Ramirez and Li said that what they most like about Ashland is how friendly people are, and no doubt, how friendly their host is.

The bonds created between Koralek and her multi-cultural guests – at the kitchen table, at the grocery store and elsewhere – have, she said, “enriched my life beyond what I anticipated.”

Of the 34 students who have stayed with Koralek, 28 stay in weekly contact.

“We become a family very quickly,” she said.

Koralek has even hosted two members of the same family at different times. Joey and Violet Yuk, from South Korea, both came to SOU and stayed with Koralek several years apart. Later on, Joey and Violet’s parents also made the trip to Southern Oregon, to visit their daughters in Koralek’s home.

Koralek said she even impressed Mrs. Yuk with her Korean eggs. “I added more garlic and less sugar,” said Koralek, who owns over 300 cookbooks. “Some people ski; I cook.”

Koralek thinks of the Yuks and the other girls who’ve stayed with her as her extended family. She even participated in Joey’s wedding ceremony through Skype.

“I was dressed in traditional Korean clothes that the girls gave me and I read a poem that Joey, who was an English major, wrote,” she said. “It was so much fun.”

But one the most rewarding parts of hosting international students, Koralek said, is “watching a young adolescence mature into an adult.” The process, she added, “is beautiful.”

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